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Stop the Presses

One of Seattle's Two Daily Newspapers Is Going to Die—Probably the 'P-I.' And That's Not a Bad Thing in the Internet Age.

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Joe Rocco
What if there were a funeral for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and nobody came?

What if there were a funeral for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and nobody came?

It seems a real possibility these days, with a swirl of credible rumors in Seattle suggesting that the P-I's legal death match with the larger Seattle Times has reached its endgame—an endgame likely to trigger the demise of the P-I, Washington's oldest morning newspaper.

The question, if you can pull yourself away from your favorite local blog or podcast long enough to consider it, is not just who will attend the P-I's funeral. It is, more broadly, this: If a failing newspaper like the P-I dies, and it dies in a city that experts agree can't support two daily newspapers anyway, and it also happens to die at the precise moment when that city is experiencing a proliferation of new media, well, who cares?

Certainly some aging readers with a sentimental attachment to newsprint will care, as will employees of the newspaper, understandably enough. Members of Seattle's Committee for a Two-Newspaper Town will care too—but they're paid to care. Backed by the local newspaper-employees' union, the committee is the professional Sicilian mourner in this drama, weeping its heart out over the coming loss of perhaps 200 good-paying union jobs.

But beyond the small circle of people with economic or sentimental interests in the survival of the P-I, there isn't much of an argument to be made for why the average news consumer should care. The argument currently being advanced is that the civic discourse in Seattle needs two daily newspapers. As the Committee for a Two-Newspaper Town puts it, "the Puget Sound area is better served with more, not fewer, forums for news and commentary."

In the abstract, who could disagree? But the longer the nearly three-year-old court fight between Seattle's two dailies drags on, the less it makes sense that increasing Seattle's forums for news and commentary must mean keeping two printed newspapers around. Reading the committee's concerns these days—concerns posted, ironically, on the group's website—one wonders: Where have these people been? While the daily newspapers have been duking it out in court, the media world has changed. These days, it seems there's never been a better time for the P-I to die.

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"There's more local news than ever before," Daniel Gross, a financial journalist whose own career reflects this strange media moment, told me recently. Gross writes for online media (Slate), print media (the New York Times), and his own blog (danielgross.net), and he's been an outspoken critic of federally approved joint operating agreements—like the one that currently props up both the P-I and the Times in a market that can't naturally sustain both papers.

The Seattle Joint Operating Agreement (JOA), which the Times wants to end and the P-I wants to keep, allows the two papers to share their printing, distribution, and ad-sales operations, and it flows directly out of the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970. That act allowed struggling local newspapers to engage in anticompetitive practices on the theory that saving two-newspaper towns was better for civic discourse than enforcing antitrust laws.

In the 36 years since, that way of thinking has become "a relic," Gross says. Across the country, newspapers are posting circulation drops as more people get their news online. "How can you make the case that it's important for the discourse if people are not subscribing?" Gross asks.

The P-I's circulation has fallen 15 percent since its corporate owner, Hearst, filed suit against the Seattle Times in 2003 in an attempt to prevent the Times from ending the JOA. Today the P-I has a daily circulation of about 133,000. The Times' circulation, by contrast, is roughly 216,000, giving it a competitive advantage few believe the P-I can overcome if the Seattle JOA is ended.

That situation might sound bad for civic discourse, but only if one neglects to factor in local media beyond the two newspapers.

"If you just look at the picture of these big newspapers it's just, 'Oh, woe is us, this industry is dying, bad,'" Gross says. But if you look at the "absolute explosion" of other types of media, he contends, the picture is hardly bleak. That's certainly true in Seattle, which has an ever-increasing number of blogs devoted to politics and local news, as well as two alt-weeklies (ahem), and an expanding number of glossy magazines interested in city life.

The Seattle Times agrees with the cornucopia view, most likely because it helps it make its case for ending the JOA and killing the P-I. "There are more voices than ever," says Jill Mackie, spokeswoman for the company. "And people have more access to those voices than ever before."

* * *

Propelling the rumors of an endgame in Seattle's newspaper war is the fact that Hearst and the Seattle Times Company have been talking, rather than litigating, for the last eight months. To observers, that means a negotiated settlement is coming, and with it the end of the P-I. Mackie confirmed the talks but wouldn't comment on them, and neither would a spokesman for Hearst.

However, there is no shortage of media experts who will state their mixed feelings about the inevitable end of Seattle as a two-newspaper town. Gross, who takes three newspapers a day, himself admits to feeling sad when newspapers die.

And Stephen Lacy, a professor at Michigan State University who studies media economics, believes Seattle would probably be better off with two dailies. But that's not economically viable, Lacy says, and "it very well might be that websites and enough alternative sites... compensate for losing that newsroom."

That, in the end, is the main concern of people like Lacy: How many newsrooms does a city need?

"It's often been said that we don't need newspapers as much as we used to," Professor John McManus of San Jose State University's School of Journalism told me. "But in most American cities, there is a food chain for journalism, and at the bottom of it is the newspaper."

His fear is that fewer newspapers will mean less at the bottom of the food chain for bloggers and others to chew on. But while it's often true that Seattle blogs such as Seattlest, Horsesass, and even The Stranger's Slog use links from the P-I and Times to build their posts, increasingly these blogs are also posting their own self-generated reporting, independent of any link to a newspaper. That's a trend McManus sees as central to the future of journalism.

It's a future still many years out, but when cheap wireless internet connections blanket urban areas, McManus thinks it's going to be specialty blogs that most people turn to for information. He envisions newsrooms being "depopulated" as these online ventures become profitable through advertising revenue and "micropayments" (charging, say, five cents a view for certain newsy offerings). Getting there is going to involve "a pretty bumpy middle," McManus says, but on the other side could be work for newspaper employees, like those at the P-I, who may lose their current jobs in the transition.

There's something else McManus expects to see: paperless newspapers that have simply moved from presses to servers. As it turns out, that's exactly what one of the more exciting rumors has the P-I doing. According to this rumor, the P-I could end its life as a traditional newspaper and at the same time leapfrog straight to the vanguard of news delivery as the nation's first major daily published only online. (A Hearst spokesman called this rumor "not true," but also said he could not discuss the paper's online future.)

It's an idea that provokes understandable anxiety for the P-I's owners, since it's not clear that a newspaper could yet make money going completely online. But at some point some newspaper is going to have to try such a model, experts say. And Hearst, which has deep pockets and under the JOA stands to get 32 percent of the Times' profits until 2083 if the P-I closes, is in a better position than most to roll the dice. If that were to happen, this wouldn't be a traditional two-newspaper town anymore, but it would be a much more exciting media market. And the P-I would have died a death with dignity, while doing a great service for online civic discourse—which, as any young reader can tell you, is the civic discourse of the future.

 

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